My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I feel almost criminal giving only 4 stars to a book acclaimed by the UK Spectator as “a remarkable novel…as touching and enthralling as any more traditional novel, its qualities enhanced by the candor and simplicity of Per Peterson’s style…” and chosen by the New York times as one of the 10 best books of the year. I admit I don’t have the critical insight of professional readers—and maybe I’ve been too influenced by Writers’ Group members who demand a strong story (typically referring to action-packed and fast-paced) told as succinctly as possible. Then again I bring my teacher’s eyes to the grammar and writing style, and expect most sentences to follow the Chicago Manual of Style format.
Petterson’s fifth book is subtle and elegantly written, even as it breaks or at least bends rules of grammar. The majority of sentences are long; run-on would be the term I’d employ. Here’s an example from page 79: “Finally there was no way they could go on, and there was no sense to it anyway, we could just as well start a new pile, which would have been the last one, because we had kept at it for a week, and now we could see the end of the felling and the stacking, and what we had so far accomplished and the amount of timber we had produced, lying shiningly yellow and stripped on the bank, was so awesome to me that I could hardly believe I had been a part of it.” [Long release of breath]
His words describe the characters’ emotions so elegantly it’s as if a painting we’re viewing suddenly comes to life. Here’s an example from page 171. “And the sun was shining and flashing in the river, and it would have been a perfect picture of that summer and the things we were doing together, if I were not still hobbling on one leg, and because inside me, not far from where my soul was, as I saw it, there was something worn and tired that just now had made my ankles and thighs too weak to carry the weight they normally would have done.”
Maybe what I miss most in this tale is drama and conclusions and grand finales. Petterson tells a story of major changes in the world and in personal experiences subtly. The main character’s father leaves the family forever when the son is fifteen for a partner in the resistance movement; yet when he encounters one of the woman’s sons fifty years later it is unknown whether the woman is still alive. Neither of the men shows any interest in finding out.
I wanted to know.